At its core, art is an experience. And like all human experiences, it’s created through perspectives — so the idea that 100 people will see 100 different things in the same work of art, probably doesn’t come as a shocker to any one of us.
The changing of people’s perspectives on life occurs more or less constantly and has been since the dawn of man, but there were special moments and individuals in our history, that acted as catalysts to this slow and steady evolution, and sometimes even triggered social and philosophical revolutions on a grander scale.
It’s not that hard to say Picasso created one such revolution — with his extraordinary persona and creative drive, Breton stripe shirt and the charm that only a southern man (or woman) can possess, he earned his right to be called one of the best artists to have lived in the 20th century, and awarded the prestigious “Get a crap car named after you” award by Citroën in 1999, that luckily got discontinued in 2012 — presumably because of his paintings becoming sentient enough to file a 15,000 party class-action lawsuit against the company for emotional distress.
There were of course many other events and people that shaped the way we perceive and understand art throughout history — a lot of them not nearly as popular as our love-hungry spaniard, but just as important.
But, today’s blunder isn’t as much about the forgotten souls that built the bedrock for contemporary art as it is about contemporary art itself. Because there is an interesting progression present throughout history, that I would like to talk about today.
If we look at how art evolved, it began as an exploration of the outer world. But as technology like paper maps and horse carriages progressed into satellite mapping and self-driving cars (just imagine: the carriage was once considered a revolutionary invention, akin to nothing that had ever existed at that time), the outside became more and more controllable, and as such less and less interesting to the average explorer.
You can only “discover” a continent once (and even once is too much if you’d ask anyone that lived on said continent, unaware that they needed discovering in the first place). But the mind, the mind is a chasm that we have still only begun to really explore.
Therefore the evolution of artistic styles — but more so the topics and ideologies that guided their evolution — present to us a wonderful macro that tells the story of where people’s attention was aimed at and even gives us some idea of where it might be in the future.
Impressionism, fauvism, expressionism and cubism, futurism, constructivism and suprematism — all the isms, more or less closing in on one particular question: “What is the minimal viable object that can produce the artistic experience?”
In the end came conceptualism and artists who were part of this movement tried to do exactly that: Find a way to make art with as few materials as possible. They even tried to create art without any materials — hence the birth of the performance and other non-materialistic approaches to art (like land art, that tried in a way to be more organic and less invasive than the “artificial” kind of art — ironic as the whole point of art is to be unlike nature, but we’re talking hippy times so we have to be forgiving).
To get to the point, conceptualism failed to create a non-material experience of art as obviously this went against the basis of what art is: a physical experience, not a mental exercise to be commended at will (and even this is questionable if it’s actually possible to have thoughts without first having experiences to produce them).
But it did one interesting thing: It took the material aspect of art and made it more or less unimportant in the grander scheme of things; if before aesthetics ruled as the merit on which artistic quality was decided, now it was “the idea”.
And if you ask anyone that made anything of importance in the world, how much ideas are worth, they might just tell you the inconvenient, but very true fact that ideas are great, but useless if not actualised, and even then, only if done so correctly and at the right time and place.
So context became content in the art world.
But the greatest change was still to come, even though its arrival was prophesied by a sad and angry German fellow with the most magnificent moustache the world has ever seen.